President Trump ordered a voter fraud investigation Thursday, thrusting back into the spotlight an issue that few other Republican leaders want to tackle as he tries to divert attention from the controversy over his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.
The order adds a new chapter to an issue that has confounded many political observers. Without any evidence, Trump, in tweets and public statements for months after his campaign ended, charged massive voter fraud to explain rival Hillary Clinton's winning the popular vote, inexplicably casting doubt on an election that he won in the electoral college.
Trump had signaled in January he would sign an order setting up an inquiry on fraud, but it has been delayed repeatedly, as aides have uncomfortably answered questions about its purpose amid widespread evidence that voter fraud is a minor problem in elections.
Like many of Trump's executive orders, the text of Thursday's missive falls far short of the dramatic rhetoric Trump once used to describe its mission — a "major investigation." It establishes a 15-member Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, led by Vice President Mike Pence, which "will be solely advisory" and submit a report to Trump when its work is complete. It does not mention the 2016 election explicitly, though that will presumably will be part of its scope.
The commission will examine fraud in voting and voter registration, vulnerabilities in the system and laws that undermine Americans' confidence in their votes. Voting rights activists and Democrats worry that it could lay the groundwork for implementing more restrictive voting laws that could suppress turnout.
The order exemplifies how Trump — who has been weighing in publicly on current events for decades as a private citizen — now can mobilize the power of the federal government, with a pen stroke, to address an unsubstantiated claim — in this case, that millions voted fraudulently in the presidential election.
‘Evidence for fraud has been thin’
Most voting specialists and researchers say Trump's repeated assertion is unfounded and even dangerous to the credibility of the democratic voting system. Voting rights advocates and Democrats nonetheless worry that Trump's investigation could spark proposals for national laws making it harder to vote.
"The evidence for fraud has been thin," said Michael P. McDonald, an elections specialist in the University of Florida's political science department. "It's a rhetorical point that Republicans have been using to advocate for restrictive voting laws."
Lawmakers also could target provisions of the 1993 Motor Voter Act that require states to help voters register when they apply for driver's licenses or public assistance.
The vice chairman of the commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has championed laws in his state and a handful of others intended to require proof of citizenship to register, which have been fought in courts by opponents who say they are intended to depress turnout. Kobach's appointment alarmed many voting rights groups.
In addition to Pence and Kobach, the White House named five other panel members, all current or former election officials, including two Democrats and one Republican formerly appointed to a position in the Obama administration.
One was Bill Gardner of New Hampshire, the longest-serving secretary of state in the country.
"When over half the people think there's voter fraud in the polls, I think it'd be helpful to know why they do," said Gardner, who has held his post since 1976.
Trump at one point claimed to a group of senators that thousands of Massachusetts voters had crossed into New Hampshire in buses to vote illegally, an assertion that was roundly dismissed by Republican leaders in the state as well as Democrats.
"People would notice, I think, a bus," said William Galvin, a Democrat who is secretary of state in Massachusetts.
Galvin called Trump's commission "ridiculous" and said Pence's role as chairman was an inherent conflict of interest, given that he ran on the ballot with Trump.
Even Trump's Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill have been reluctant to join him.
"We've moved on," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican on Capitol Hill, said in Trump's first days in office.
"We had an election; it was a decisive outcome. We have a new president, a new Congress, and I view the election as history and we're ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work for the American people."
Trump spent weeks tweeting unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud after his electoral victory in November, as it became clear that Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots.
"I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," he tweeted Nov. 27.
Others in his party dismissed the claim, and Trump's own lawyers, while fighting recount efforts in Michigan, argued that "all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake."
But Trump would not let up, believing his legitimacy as president was at stake. He repeated his grievances in a private White House meeting with congressional leaders just days after his inauguration.
That prompted reporters to ask his aides why he was not ordering a federal investigation, given the stakes of his claim. Trump essentially called their bluff, tweeting that he would order a "major investigation into VOTER FRAUD" in January, using all capital letters to underscore his defiance in the face of criticism.
"Take a look what's registering," Trump said during an address to Republican members in Philadelphia in his first week as president. "We are going to protect the integrity of the ballot box, and we are going to defend the votes of the American citizens. So important."
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republican lawmakers sat passively during that part of the speech that was otherwise greeted with cheers in several sections.
The Pew study
Trump has been conflating two issues, frequently pointing out accurately that voter rolls are rife with dead voters and people who have moved to other jurisdictions or states and re-registered.
Yet registering in two states does not mean people have voted twice. Several news organizations reported that Trump's closest advisor, Stephen K. Bannon, had been registered in both Florida and New York until the oversight was reported and he dropped his Florida registration. Trump's daughter Tiffany was registered in New York and Philadelphia.
"Legitimately, yes, we do have an issue with what is called dead wood, where people persist on the voter file after they move from one state to another," McDonald said.
It's not illegal to remain registered in two states. But it does cause confusion and opens the possibility of fraud, prompting election supervisors to try harder to clean up their roles in recent years, using databases to identify people who may not belong on them. But the law requires officials to wait two missed election cycles and make an attempt to contact voters before dropping them, to ensure people are not unfairly disenfranchised.
Election experts say a bipartisan commission, if it looked at access as well as fraud, could help clean up issues like that on the national level. But given the genesis of Trump's order, they are dubious, even though Trump's commission has Democratic members.
Richard L. Hasen, a voting law expert at UC Irvine's law school, said he instead expected the "Trump Department of Justice to change positions 180 degrees" from President Obama's, which generally opposed state voting laws that require photo identification at the voting booth. The Obama administration had sided with a challenge to a Texas voter identification law that courts ruled was discriminatory.
After the 2013 election, Obama established his own election commission with a mandate "to identify best practices in election administration and to make recommendations to improve the voting experience."
Obama named as co-chairmen the men who served as campaign attorneys for him and Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in 2012. In 2014, they released their recommendations, including expanding online voter registration, increasing early voting, making it easier for military personnel deployed overseas to vote, and upgrading decades-old election equipment in many states.
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.
3:35 p.m.: The story was updated with new details.
12:55 p.m. The story was updated with issuance of the order and details on its content.